February 9th, 2019
SEOUL -- At age 70, Son is not asking for much. The Seoul resident just wishes he had 10,000 won, or about $9, to live on per day. "That's all I want," he said.
His daily ritual is to head to the South Korean capital's Pagoda Park, where he and his friends buy 2,500 won bowls of cow blood soup for lunch. "I think it's the cheapest in the country," said Son, who gave only his surname. "Afterward, we go for 200 won coffee."
Son draws a basic monthly pension of 250,000 won from the government but ends up with very little after paying his bills. "I can't even heat my room as much as I want. I turn it on for a while and turn it off again to save money." Still, in a rapidly aging country facing an epidemic of senior poverty and a daunting pension reform challenge, he may be one of the luckier ones.
As younger generations abandon the Confucian tradition of caring for elders and the government struggles to pick up the slack, shockingly high numbers of older South Koreans are killing themselves. In 2017, the suicide rate per 100,000 people stood at 48.8 for 70-somethings and 70.0 for those in their 80s or older, according to the Korea Suicide Prevention Center, an arm of the Health and Welfare Ministry. The national average was 24.3.
While President Moon Jae-in is taking steps to change a pension system considered one of the weakest in Asia, the issue looks likely to dog politicians for decades to come.
"The state's and the government's political inability and irresponsibility is the reason behind senior citizens' highest poverty and suicide rates" among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members, said Cho Hyun-yun, a researcher at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It is crucial that political parties play key roles in resolving elderly poverty."
The situation is far worse than in Asia's other poster country for aging, Japan, where the growing social welfare burden is a constant concern for policymakers. OECD data shows that in 2015, 45.7% of South Koreans over the age of 65 lived in poverty -- the most of any member state and well above Japan's rate of 19.6%.
The generation of South Koreans now between the ages of 60 and 80 is the last one that supported parents financially and, broadly speaking, it is the first to go without such support. "My children's generation has no idea how to support parents," said Kang, 79, who also asked to be identified only by his surname. "I cannot ask my son or daughter-in-law for money."
Kim Yu-kyung, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, observed: "Korea's family structure has become smaller, with society being more individualized. People believe that the state can and should support senior citizens, not the family."
South Korea has the highest proportion of seniors living in poverty among OECD members. (Photo by Jean Chung)
So far, the state is failing miserably.
The country's pension system received a grade of D in the 2018 Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, alongside Japan, China and India, which means there are major weaknesses and omissions that need to be addressed.
"South Korea suffers from one of the weakest pension systems for the poor when expressed as a percentage of the average wage, at just 6%," said David Anderson, Mercer's international president.